Contested Energy Territories in the Post-carbon Transitions: Considerations from Two Cases of Wind-energy Production in Mexico and Italy

Samadhi Lipari [ gysl@leeds.ac.uk ]
University of Leeds
Rosa Lehman [ rosa.lehmann@uni-jena.de ]
Friedrich Schiller University of Jena

With the global take off of renewables in the 1990s, conflicts surrounding the construction of wind and solar plants and the production of biomass for energy can be observed in different places (Pasqualetti, 2011; Llanes Salazar, forthcoming). For wind energy, land and landscape alteration are only one point of critique. In parts of the world as different as southern Mexico and southern Italy, wind-energy production is at the core of contestations encompassing the entire webs of socio-ecological relations and relevant power balance including cultural understandings, socio-technical systems and geo-physical transformations. These struggles are often defined as either ‘local’ or ‘territorial’ by state apparatuses, investors, local community members and activists. The ‘local’ or ‘territorial’ scale is often used to diminish the importance of the struggles reducing it to a miscomprehension of the systemic importance of wind-energy production and consequently blaming it as a NIMBY syndrome by state actors or investors, whereas local communities and activist networks claim to be defending ‘territories’ from disruption, devastation or in some case commodification.
There is therefore a common ground shared by state actors, investors, inhabitants and activists: territory. They want either to access it for investing or to defend it from investing: they know that controlling it is the inescapable condition to enable value extraction and accumulation mechanisms.
What is then territory? Magnaghi (2013) argues that “it does not exist in nature […] it is a product of humankind, of its inbred tendency to build his own environment in cultural forms. […] Territory is neither [just ed] a geographical space or the soil of pedology, it is a living subject with a high complexity, as a result of co-evolutionary and synergic processes between human settlement (organized on cultural bases) and the environment (organised on both geological and biological bases). In such a fecundation and domestication relation, human societies incessantly produce neo-ecosystems (cities, infrastructures, reclamations, agro-forestry spaces, etc.), the equilibrium of which, as a relation result, needing the evolutionary continuity of the latter”.
It follows that acquiring land rights to build an industrial-scale wind farm is not just seizing control on a piece of land on the globe. It is adjusting socio-ecological relations, happening on (and attached to) that plot, to the requirements of value extraction, in the different forms of incorporation, dispossession and valuation. It is building an environment as the “palimpsest of landscapes fashioned according to the dictates of different modes of production at different stages of their historical development. [Under capitalism, ed] all elements assume a commodity form” (Harvey, 1982).
Territories, as investment targets, are therefore situated in an interstitial dimension in between being a common heritage and a global resource. Movements and local communities resisting territories’ incorporation into value chain experience capital penetration processes revolving around hegemonic discourses leveraging climate change mitigation and in some case land underutilisation to hack formal and substantial democratic participation mechanisms.
While wind-energy project proponents can rely on coalitions with regional and central state actors as well as private companies, IFIs and (trans)national environmental organisations, all framing wind-energy generation as a win-win-solution to both tackle the climate crisis and generate economic growth, critics can -at the best- politicize their critique and ally with local, (trans)national civil society actors and some state actors. In short: Wind energy projects in southern Italy and Mexico are reshaping territories’ socio-ecological relation making use of power asymmetries conveying inequalities.

Debates of scholars and activists which work on Latin America emphasize the production of territory and the social struggles involved in that production, understanding territory as “the appropriation of space in pursuit of political projects – in which multiple (from bottom-up grassroots to top-down state) political strategies exist as overlapping and entangled.” (Halvorsen, 2018: 2). This is a useful perspective for the analysis of struggles surrounding wind energy production. However, basing our two empirical cases, for the understanding of territory as a concept we deem vital to stress the role of value extraction and accumulation.
In Mexico, wind energy projects in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the southern state of Oaxaca were implemented from the 1990s onwards, giving out concessions to mostly European wind companies and investors, and planning the so-called wind corridors on the drawing boards of government officials and company staff. Company staff went out to lease land in communities where historical land conflicts and multiple land claims had been existing for decades. Since 2006 onwards, wind energy has been produced mostly for private companies geographically based in central and northern Mexico. Criticism and contestation against the lack of economic benefit and democratic participation of local communities has been framed by federal state officials, company and IFI staff as political agendas of unruly locals opposing green development in the historically rebellious Isthmus were movements have been fighting against the incorporation into Mexican central state since colonial times. Social movements against the wind projects in turn claim to defend their territory against so-called development projects which leave nothing in the Isthmus besides hundreds of turbines and temporary jobs, restructuring access to land and social relations, ignoring local knowledge on the impacts of existing windfarms, and re-including the Isthmus into one hub of capitalist development in Mexico.
In Italy, poorly productive areas in anemometric terms situated in the south Apennine between Campania, Puglia and Basilicata, were produced as a ‘wind-Eldorado’ by a disproportionately wealthy subsidisation system which turned a “productively dubious industrial operation, into a great financial business”, as an investor described it in an interview. In this transformation, a key role is played by facilitating agents actually allowing global investors to obtain permits and acquire land. Greenfield developers, as the specialised jargon defines them, but whom fieldwork informants identify as ‘middlemen’ “[enact ed] a practical-based expertise in very local contexts where trust is mainly established through “direct” social relations. These expert workers are well acquainted with the people, culture and social relations of the places where they work and, very often, live. Their competence accountability is strictly linked to a sort of […] embedded socio-technical knowledge” (Giannini et al., 2012). They command a complex and frequently changing regulatory framework and, on the other hand, make use of a deep knowledge of both socio-economic and cultural contexts. “They hold the keys to the territory: that’s how they make money”. These words spoken in an interview by a small village mayor, clarify how middlemen’s vital role in value extraction and accumulation yields them a positioning within the wind-energy value chain, through which they capture a substantial share of the extracted surplus, as evidenced by their biographies, in some cases corresponding to that of a tycoon.
Global, financialised capital needs to ground on specific territories in order to prompt extraction and accumulation mechanisms. The transformations triggered by wind-energy projects, and resulting—throughout projects life cycle—into the incorporation of territories within global value chains are just epiphenomena of deeper capitalism’s reorganising dynamics. While expanding commodification over nature, these are legitimised by an emergency hegemonic rhetoric around climate change mitigation imperatives, which obscures power asymmetries and inequalities and strengthens production and consumption patterns, in fact disrupting living conditions on earth.

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